This post was co-written with Celine Salcedo-La Viña, an associate with WRI's Land and Resource Rights project.

Many countries in Africa are rich with trees, wildlife, minerals, and other natural resources. But as new WRI research and an interactive map show, few national laws provide communities with strong, secure rights to the resources on their land.

WRI conducted a systematic review of the national framework laws for five natural resources—water, trees, wildlife, minerals, and petroleum—in 49 sub-Saharan African countries. The results are presented in our new Rights to Resources map, an online tool that provides a visual overview of resource rights in Africa and allows users to compare findings across countries and resources.

Our results confirm what some researchers and development professionals have long suspected: Across sub-Saharan Africa, rights to many high-value natural resources are held by the state. Even where smallholder farmers or communities hold legal rights to the land they live on, the government owns or has rights to use many of the resources found on or underneath the soil. Smallholder farmers and communities must obtain a government permit and often pay a fee to use these resources. Weak resource rights can deprive communities of vital materials for their subsistence and livelihoods, lead to negative environmental consequences, and impede efforts toward sustainable development.

Weak Resource Rights

According to our research, most national forest laws in sub-Saharan Africa limit harvesting of trees without government authorization. Citizens and communities are only allowed “free” use rights of dead wood and products found on the forest floor. Many wildlife laws only allow free hunting of animals declared as vermin or non-game species, while most water laws limit free use to domestic and personal purposes..

Citizens and communities have even fewer rights to minerals and petroleum. Many laws in sub-Saharan Africa distinguish between surface and sub-surface minerals, granting free use rights only to some surface minerals such as limestone, sand, clay, and rock. No one can access minerals found below the soil without a government permit, and no country in sub-Saharan Africa provides free use rights to petroleum.

A Hindrance to Sustainable Development

Weak resource rights can lead to social and environmental problems. Take Ghana, for example: Naturally-occurring trees are nominally owned by the chieftaincy or traditional authorities, but commercial rights to timber species belong to the state. Landholders do not own or have rights to benefit from naturally-occurring trees on their land. Trees that are planted by farmers on their land are treated as naturally-occurring trees unless they are formally registered with the state. The state can grant rights to loggers or companies to harvest mature timber trees even if they are located on privately-held land. Revenues from timber harvesting are captured by loggers, traditional authorities, and government agencies, but they are not shared with the farmers who use the land where the timber is sourced. Moreover, farmers are rarely compensated for damages to crops that result from logging operations on their land.

With only weak rights, many farmers are reluctant to plant timber trees. Some resort to destroying or removing trees on their farms before logging companies come to harvest. For example, one woman in southwestern Ghana’s Sureso village remarked, “since timber trees are for the government and we don't benefit from them, I burn them on my farm in order to plant my crops." Her sentiments are shared by others in Sureso. Another villager, an elderly man, reported, “(i)f I will not get anything from timber trees I protect on my land and if timber contractors will harvest them and destroy my crops, then I will destroy them while they are young in order to avoid future damage to my crops.”

A Need for Strong Resource Rights

As illustrated in Ghana’s Sureso village, in the absence of strong rights to natural resources, smallholder farmers and communities have few incentives to sustainably manage them. In many such cases, the resources are lost and the environment is degraded. Without the rights to use and benefit from resources, communities also miss out on important livelihood opportunities that could improve their welfare and reduce poverty.

In contrast, strong, secure rights to natural resources can create a powerful incentive for citizens and communities to sustainably manage trees, water, wildlife and more. Understanding the nature and extent of legal rights to resources is an important first step in designing projects that promote sustainable development and environmental management. By sharing new information and fostering greater knowledge-sharing, WRI’s Rights to Resources map supports efforts to strengthen and secure resource rights for citizens and local communities in sub-Saharan Africa.

LEARN MORE: WRI works to strengthen land and resource rights in Africa and other geographies around the world. Check out our Land and Resource Rights project.

View the interactive map >>